SXSW 2013: Long live the experience

From Google's talking shoes to all things Oreo, Starcom digital VP Robin Hassan gets MiC readers past the long lines in Austin to share details from this year's festival.

Robin Hassan is VP digital at Starcom, and leads SMG’s Centre of Excellence in Social Media & Mobile. You can follow Robin at her blog or on Twitter @Robinkayh.

I had the pleasure of attending South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin this past weekend. For the uninitiated, this 10-day festival has been running since 1987 usually in early March, always in Austin, Texas.

The event covers, film, interactive, music and recently gaming. Music has traditionally been the focal point of this event that saw over 40,000 attendees descend on Austin just this past week. In 2007, Twitter used the conference as its launching pad and since then the interactive events have quickly become some of the most sought-after tickets at the festival.

In true crowdsourcing form, potential SXSW sessions are pitched to organizers and then voted on by attendees to make it on the final schedule. Speakers this year ranged from Al Gore and to marketers like Bonin Bough (Mondelez) and technologists like Jason Silva.

Here are the three “ah ha” themes I’ve taken back with me from my time at the 2013 festival.

Tech Innovation Burnout: Perhaps it’s a trend after the last few years seeing innovations fall flat after SXSW (e.g. Highlight), but it seems more of a collective perspective that having the technology and social hooks figured out already at the festival is a basic expectation.

Don’t get me wrong, there were dozens of new and incredible technology innovations (from 3D printers to Google’s talking shoe) and apps (e.g. LocalMind, a Yelp-Foursquare-Quora-type local app) that launched during the festival. The most interesting discussions were around the “so what?” How can these technology innovations provide us (and our consumers) with more meaningful experiences?

Storytelling Design: Another interesting theme was around the evolution of the storytelling approach from applying user experience design principles, to lean start-up methodology (go to market, then iterate till you get it right), to discussing real-time marketing (Mondelez had a terrific pop-up panel on the Oreo approach).

One of the most popular panels was on the concept of brand fans becoming the brand marketers, featuring Frito-Lay’s “Do us a Flavour” promotion from the Super Bowl. It all points to one major change that has been discussed feverishly even north of the border in the past six months, to truly engage in storytelling. Does that signal the end of the flighted campaign-based marketing model? Ultimately, the question will be how brand marketers (and their agencies) leverage the incredible social insight data they now have at hand to participate in this new brand-based culture in impactful ways.

Influencer Marketing: The minute one arrives at SXSW, you are hit with an incredible amount of marketing that brands are putting behind catching the attention of the influencer elite attending the festival. From Cirque de Soliel offering up Klout VIP access to a special SXSW show, Samsung Galaxy offering NFC-activated freebies around Austin, to Oreo providing free Pedicab service for attendees in-between 12 campuses, not to mention surprise music acts and exclusive parties. The presence of brands trying to establish their leadership and innovation at this event makes sense. It does make me ponder the limitations in today’s tracking solutions for identifying influencers outside an event like SXSW, especially at the local level.

The most profound thing to note about SXSW is that despite having some terrific keynotes and sessions, the most interesting lessons came from the off-schedule pop-up panels and side conversations started while waiting in the incredibly long lines the festival is known for. Like I said, it’s about the experience.

Were you at SXSW this weekend? Would love to hear your perspective here or on Twitter at #sxswEh.